Our resident Christian implied recently that I disputed that stories about Jesus existed prior to the gospels being written. I don’t – this was another of Don’s straw man arguments – and told him that of course there were earlier stories about Jesus. But then I got to thinking: where exactly are those stories? How do we know they existed? How can we distinguish them from later embellishments?
Let’s take a look at the evidence*, starting with the earliest Christian writing that we have:
Paul doesn’t refer to a single event from Jesus’ life outside a barebone account of the crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t mention, for example, the nativity, the virgin birth, Jesus’ time in the wilderness, his chat with the devil, his baptism, John the Baptist, the miracles, the amazing things Jesus is reputed to have said, the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes, the I Am sayings, the healings, Lazarus, the arrival in Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, Judas, Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ trial, the mockery of the soldiers, Peter’s denial, the words Jesus spoke on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, the rolled away stone, the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas or the physical Ascension. Neither does he refer to any incidents or episodes from stories that didn’t eventually make it into the gospels. Not one of them. (He does create a narrative of his own that later finds its way there: the ritual of sharing bread and wine which Paul lifts from Pagan ceremonies. We’ll return to it in a later post.)
Apologists like to say that these serious omissions are no more than Paul’s assumption that his readers would already know the stories about Jesus. He does not need to reiterate them. But no-one is suggesting he should or would have recounted them in full. What is odd and awkward is that Paul doesn’t even allude to them in his teaching. He could clinch many an argument by referring to a particular saying or miracle of Jesus’, but he never does.
When talking about obeying the (Roman) authorities, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:12 &13, he could have said, ‘Recall that the Lord told us we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ but he doesn’t. He could have alluded to Thomas when explaining the importance of having faith without evidence; talked about the empty tomb when discussing Jesus’ resurrection; mentioned the raising of Lazarus as an example of the dead being resurrected; commented on Jesus turning water into wine when arguing that the Law had been superseded by a new covenant. He might even have quoted something Jesus said from a story in circulation that didn’t later end up in one of the gospels.
He doesn’t. Ever.
Paul claims he received none of his information about Jesus from any human being. He insists he received all he knew through revelation – the Lord speaking to him from heaven. Apparently, the Lord neglected to convey any of the details of his life on Earth. The apostles kept equally schtum. Paul was no more knowledgeable about the life of Jesus once he’d he met them than he had been before. Was he not inquisitive? Did he not ask the right questions? Did they dislike him so much they withheld every detail of Jesus’ activities on Earth? Did they not in fact have that kind of information? Whichever it was, Paul seems not have known any of the stories about Jesus that predated the gospels or even that later appeared in them. It’s possible, I would say likely, he did not know of them because they had yet to be created. Many of the stories about Jesus were ten or more years away.
But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. Next time we’ll take a look at other possible sources of these elusive stories.
*I read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before The Gospels a few years back. I hope I’m not merely reiterating what he says there. While there were some points I found less persuasive than others, Ehrman nevertheless does a good job of showing how stories about Jesus changed and evolved over the years.